Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)

Understanding Very Complex Issues

Explore different "worldviews".

© iStockphoto/Kronick

Some problem solving tools can oversimplify the world when, in reality, it can be complex and messy.

In cases where many different factors contribute to an issue, and there are lots of different perspectives to consider, it can be difficult to tell where the root of the problem really lies. All this confusion can make finding a solution seem impossible. What you need is a problem solving approach that gives you a clear view of what's involved, so that you can focus on what you can do to improve the situation. In situations like this, Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) might be just what you need. 

How SSM Was Developed

Soft Systems Methodology grew out of general systems theory, which views everything in the world as part of an open, dynamic, and interconnected system. The various parts of this system interact with one another, often in a nonlinear way, to produce a result.

According to general systems theory, organizations consist of complex, dynamic, goal-oriented processes – and all of these work together, in a coordinated way, to produce a particular result. For example, if a company's strategy is to maximize profits by bringing new products to market quickly, then the systems within the company must all work together to achieve this goal.

When something goes wrong within the system, or any of its subsystems, you must analyze the individual parts to discover a solution. In hard sciences, you can do this in a very controlled, analytical way. However, when you add human or "soft" elements – like social interaction, corporate politics, and individual perspectives – it's a much more difficult process.

That's why Peter Checkland, a management scientist and systems professor, applied the science of systems to the process of solving messy and confusing management problems. The result was Soft Systems Methodology – a way to explore complex situations with different stakeholders; numerous goals; different viewpoints and assumptions; and complicated interactions and relationships.

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